Blog Archives

Greek fathers roundup

Here’s a roundup of all the papers and abstracts that we have posted over the last several weeks in our series on the Greek Fathers.

And, here is the Greek Fathers Annotated Bibliography. Thanks everyone for submitting your papers and making them available here.

Relics and religious experience

Relics are easy to criticize. As Antonio Lambatti points in in a  recent post, some people do really goofy things in the name of venerating relics. (Anyone want a grilled cheese sandwich that looks like Jesus?) Such abuses, and their corresponding critiques, have been around for a very long time. The question is…why. Setting aside the question of whether there are true relics, why is the need/desire for relics so powerful that many people will participate in practices that seem (to many at least) rather absurd.

Lambatti offers the assessment that relics manifest a tendency to objectify the divine. People venerate relics out of a “need to see, to turn their idea of the divine into an object which is here with us on Earth.” And, I’m sure there is some truth to that. And, I wonder if the desire to objectify God doesn’t manifest an even deeper desire to control God’s presence so that he can be more reliably experienced. Rather than a spirit who blows where and when he wills, we have God’s presence infused into a physical object where he can be reliably encountered. I saw this dynamic at work when I was traveling in Israel. Many of the students I was traveling with were frustrated that they did not “experience” God the way that they expected when they visited certain holy sites. It’s as though they believed that these sites had been permanently infused with the divine presence such that they could expect to meet him there. They wanted a more predictable God. Now, certainly God can choose to offer a special manifestation of his presence in particular places (e.g. the temple) or things (e.g. the ark). But, that does not mean that either of these becomes a permanent locus of divine presence (note God’s presence leaving the temple) unless God covenants that it be so (e.g. communion). If I’m right, there may be a sense in which the use (and abuse) of relics has more to do with our desire to possess, and therefore control, God’s presence.

Reflecting on this a bit more, I wonder if the abuse of relics also suggests a failure to appreciate our own bodies, and consequently, the embodied nature of the church itself. People find in relics a tangible, physical expression of the divine, failing to realize that the primary locus of God’s presence in the world has always been in and through his embodied people – his “images” in the world (Adam and Eve, Israel, the Church, the eschatological people of God). That means that if we are looking for a tangible, physical point of connection for worship, we should look first to ourselves and to each other as embodied beings. Indeed, I wonder if the emphasis on relics isn’t a way of distancing ourselves from our own role as God’s images in the world. Rather than facing directly the awesome honor and responsibility that it is to be God’s physical image (i.e. idol) in the world, we can project at least some of that burden onto some other object and make that the tangible point of connection with the divine.

None of this is to say that we should denigrate the role of the physical in worship. I completely affirm that we are physical beings and that we can, indeed must, express ourselves physically in worship. And I greatly appreciate the renewed emphasis on physical worship that you find in some branches of evangelicalism. Done well, that could be a great way to deepen evangelical worship. But, if popular abuses of relics do indicate a strong tendency that humans in gneral have toward trying to control the divine presence and/or distancing ourselves from our own role in imaging God, then we would be wise to be mindful of these concerns as we deveop our own forms of physical worship.

Flotsam and jetsam (5/14)

What could be better on a sunny Friday morning in Portland (or, wherever you are) than a Grease-themed video tribute to Wayne Grudem! I think I’ll need counseling after this one.

  • If you haven’t been following the many discussions taking place around the blogosphere on James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, CT has a nice series of posts that should help you get caught up. Chuck Colson, Andy Crouch, and Christopher Benson all off their perspectives.
  • The T&T Clark blog has a guest post by Riemer Roukema introducing his book Jesus, Gnosis, and Dogma. I can’t say that the summary sounds like anything groundbreaking, but for those interested in historical Jesus studies, it might be worth a look.
  • Anyone interested in a $189,000 iPad should check here.
  • Per crucem ad lucem offers a brief summary of key reasons that people think images of Jesus are idolatrous, including a very nice summary of Barth and Calvin on the subject, before arguing that the visual arts can be a powerful, though potentially risky, theological resource. This is a good follow up piece for Andreas’ paper on icons and iconoclams in the theology of St. John of Damascus.
  • Kevin DeYoung offers some thoughts on why confession of sin is important in the life of the believer and the believing community.

Icons or idolatry: iconoclasm in the early church

Andreas has graciously posted his recent paper on John of Damascus for your perusal. He provides an interesting summary of the iconoclastic controversy, offering much food for thought on the role of images in contemporary worship. I’d be interested in hearing your comments on Andreas’ paper, or just the idea of icons in general.

Here’s his paper and abstract:

Saint John of Damascus and the Iconoclastic Controversy: The Essential Need for Image(s) in Christian Worship

Scholars have pointed to various motives that may have induced the Iconoclastic emperors of the Isaurian dynasty (717-886). These motives have often been characterized as being mainly political: for one, the army was recruited from territories traditionally hostile to, not only the use of icons, but also the dominant Church and its practices (Armenians, Mardiates of Lebanon, Isuarians, Manicheans, Paulicians). Some have suggested that Leo was aiming to stabilize the Empire by suppressing local freedom. Unfortunately, for Leo III, this move seemed to have the opposite effect on the people. It increased the enthusiasm with which the images were defended, and Monks of the monastic movement, who stood for non-conformity, soon took advantage of the situation. They saw the opportunity to shake off the imperial yoke that the Emperor had placed on the Church, once and for all. Finally, considering the heightened presence of Islam, and the ongoing dialogue with Jews, it made sense for the Emperor to suppress or at least limit the use of images.